Even if you aren’t a Cleveland Browns fan you’d admit watching them work the last few weeks has restored faith in a franchise which has never played in the Super Bowl and won only once during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Gosh, one of the NFL Network’s analysts was talking up the Browns on Wednesday as a legitimate candidate to not only win the AFC North but unseat the defending champion New England Patriots.
What’s more, the television networks that carry NFL games are probably negotiating right to make sure the Browns get each of the five primetime night games they are allowed.
The Cleveland Browns? The Cleveland Browns!
Credit Browns general manager John Dorsey and ownership for deciding to shove their chips into the middle of the table to make a run in 2019. They have already distanced themselves from the moribund, sad-sack organization that has shuttled 30 quarterbacks in and out since they rejoined the NFL in 1999.
Do you remember Spergon Wynn, Charlie Frye and Seneca Wallace? The hope now is that you’ll never forget Baker Mayfield.
The Browns finished last season 7-8-1 after winning five of their last seven games. It was quite the turnaround from where they sat (2-5-1) on Oct. 29 after firing coach Hue Jackson and replacing him with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Dorsey decided not to rehire Williams at the end of the season, turning instead to Freddie Kitchens, who had been promoted to offensive coordinator upon the dismissal of Jackson. They did so because Kitchens, who had never called a play in the NFL, was able to light the gas burner under Mayfield.
And once Kitchens was in place, Dorsey got moving on acquiring the pieces he hoped will turn the team from a curiosity into a contender.
Dorsey began by taking a chance on disgraced halfback Kareem Hunt, who had been released by the Chiefs last season after video of him physically abusing a woman in a Cleveland hotel became public. Hunt, who is immensely talented, will likely miss the first portion of the 2019 season if the NFL suspends him.
It was during the preamble to free agent that Dorsey really got to work. And he had a lot to work with – $70 million in salary cap space.
He signed defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, a former first-round pick of the New York Jets, to a three-year, $39 million deal ($21.5 guaranteed) to line up next to Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi.
Then he acquired linebacker Olivier Vernon and All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., from the New York Giants for offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler, safety Jabrill Peppers, the 19th pick in the 2019 draft and a third-round pick.
In many ways, this transaction equaled the excitement the city felt when the Cavaliers drafted Lebron James. The thought of Beckman joining forces with Mayfield, receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end David Njoku, immediately energized Cleveland got the phones in their ticket office ringing.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to be part of this organization and the direction they are headed,” Beckham said. “I’ve already witnessed the energy fans bring in that city having been to some (NBA) playoff games. Browns fans deserve a winning football team. This is a fresh start for me and it’s going to be great to join Baker (Mayfield) and Jarvis on this team. I will always appreciate the opportunity the Giants granted me and I’m thankful to them along with the fans and people in that city for supporting me.”
You’ll recall that one of Dorsey’s first moves after taking the job last season was acquiring Landry – Beckham’s teammate at LSU – and then signing him to a five—year, $75 million deal ($47 million guaranteed). And then he drafted cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick in 2018, three slots behind Mayfield.
“It’s a reflection of the direction the organization is headed,” Dorsey said. “My hat’s off to a lot of people in this organization because we spent countless hours, weeks – I mean, we can go all the way back to December when we began the planning phases of these types of acquisitions. So my hat’s off to a lot of people in the personnel department and the coaching staff. And for ownership for allowing these types of things to happen. It shows you that ownership is committed to winning.
“Then, when you talk about the players. Each of them respectively are very good football players who will come in here and help us achieve our goal, and that’s to be competitive year in and year out in the AFC North. And hopefully, they are some of the pieces that will help us awaken this sleeping giant.”
Think of what the Browns offense looks like now. Mayfield threw for 27 touchdowns last season. He is a dynamic, playmaking offensive force. If all goes well with Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing in 2017, he will pair up with Nick Chubb, who gained nearly 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Then they will lineup Beckham, Landry and Njoku, who caught 56 passes last season.
Since 1999, the Browns have had only three 1,000-yard rushers: Jamal Lewis (200), Reuben Droughns (2005) and Peyton Hillis (2010). They haven’t had a receiver gain 1,000 yards since Josh Gordon’s league-leading 1,646 yards in 2013.
Now suddenly, no team in the AFC North will field more weapons than the Browns.
The Browns have not made the playoffs since 2002, but overnight they have become 17-1 odds to win the Super Bowl.
“I’m excited to be a part of the Dawg Pound, be able to represent and help build something special in Cleveland,” Vernon said. “The front office is adding pieces to the puzzle. We are trying to win.